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Hakusan Chapter 2 – Revenge

My first trip to Hakusan was a total washout, and ever since that dreadful ascent back in 2004 I was looking for a chance to appreciate the mountain without having to bag a peak on the list. That’s the beauty of a re-climb, as there’s no pressure to summit the mountain at all. With that in mind I once again teamed up with Fumito, who was still recovering from a rock climbing trip to nearby Gozaisho. He picked me up at Nagoya station shortly before noon and then pointed the car north, through Gifu Prefecture and then onto route 158, where we passed by the trailhead to Mt. Arashima. It was very tempting to pull the car off to the derelict ski resort for an afternoon ascent, but we had our eyes set on the big hike tomorrow.

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We arrived at Ichinose just after 4pm and set up camp near the river in the tranquil campground. Due to the immense popularity of Hakusan, private cars are no longer allowed to Bettodai during the weekend and Obon peak, so we simply had to wait for the first shuttle bus at 5am the following morning. We killed time in the rustic hot spring bath across from the bus stop, soaking up the minerals that we hoped would provide some extra energy for the impending climb.

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The alarm rang at 4am and we quickly sprang to work, cooking up a bowl of pasta and fresh coffee while breaking down camp in the dark. By the time we reached the bus stop at 4:45am, the queue snaked around the corner and we were denied entry to the 5am bus. Luckily there was another bus that left just 10 minutes later and we piled in for the 20-minute journey to the trailhead. Bettodeai was just as I had remembered it, though with tenfold the crowds. There’s something very unfortunate about hiking during the summer holiday peak, and that is having to share the trail with several hundred other climbers. The parking lot at Ichinose can accommodate 750 vehicles, so an attendance of over 1000 people is not unheard of in this season.

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As we prepared our gear, I noticed that every single hiker seemed to be crossing the suspension bridge which leads to the  Saboshindo route. This trail was closed during my first visit to the mountain, so I was very tempted to explore this route. However, it seemed best to avoid the throngs of people and use this route on the descent, so instead of crossing the bridge, we turned left and entered the Kankoshindo trail. This is the same trail that I took during my first ascent, but it honestly did not look familiar at all. The first part of the path climbed through a healthy broadleaf forest that sat still in the early morning glow. Fumito set off on a snail’s pace from the start, and I was really starting to wonder if we would even make it above the treeline before dark, but he soon found his rhythm and we walked in unison towards the ridge line. We spent most of the first hour in complete solitude, once being passed by a trail-running duo who seemed more intent on getting exercise than on enjoying the scenery.

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The map said to allow 1 hour and 40 minutes to reach the ridge, but we did it in just under 60 minutes. So much for Fumito’s slow pace. Even with our snail’s advance we were still passing groups along the way. The ridge marks the point where the Kanko route merges with the Zenjodo route, the traditional path up the mountain. In ancient times, these so-called “paths of meditation” converged from provinces surrounding the sacred peak. As we turned right and followed the worn stone steps along the undulating ridge, I thought of the 8th century Buddhist monk Taicho, who declared the volcano a holy site. Obviously he was drawn to the unparalleled beauty of the place – the wildflowers covering the slopes like a warm, soft blanket, the lingering snowfields which loiter around in the hot summer months, waiting for mother nature to reapply their coats of frozen paint. His devotion to the mountains spawned an entire religious sect, and this route we were now following led devotees from Echizen province to the sacred highlands above both the trees and clouds.

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We settled into a steady rhythm, pausing at a large overhanging boulder that stretched all the way across the trail. We ducked under the protruding slab and sat, absorbing the fresh rays of sunlight that by now had made their way over the summit plateau directly in front of us. The warmth of the sun also brought the cloud, which threatened to swallow us and transform the mountain into that all-too-familiar world of fuzzy mist. We picked up the pace, reaching the emergency hut at Tonogaike just as my bowels released their pent-up rage. If not for the clean toilet at the recently reconstructed hut I would have surely made quite a mess on the trail.

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The hut was in shambles during my last visit, but the sparkling new shelter would make for a fantastic place to overnight if not for the lack of fresh water. We were now above 2000 meters in height, and had a rather daunting ascent of 700 more vertical meters until reaching the summit. We were truly in a race against the clouds, and one in which we would likely not win.

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Continuing unabated, we soon reached the junction of the Sabo shindo route, where the crowds increased a hundredfold. All of those hikers crossing the bridge at the start of the hike had now caught up to us, and we followed the freight train of sleep-deprived zombies up above the tree line. The path flattened out in a broad plateau, with wooden planks constructed to help control the massive crowds. These wooden walkways certainly were not here during my first trip, but they did make the going much smoother until they petered out at a headwall of a steep, boulder-strewn stretch of mountain. Step by step we advanced, the steep rise spitting us out right at the doorstep of Murodo village. By village I truly mean it. In addition to the sprawling visitor’s center, there was now a fully functioning post office, souvenir shop, and cafeteria that could accommodate hundreds of hungry hikers. The complex officially sleeps 750 people, but I imagine that on this particular day, they were prepared to accept double that number.

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We perched ourselves on a bench on the far side of the A-frame structure, just in front of the main shrine that was currently being renovated and completely reconstructed. The pockets of the Hakusan sect truly run deep. The summit of Mt. Gozen floated in and out of the cloud like a seal bobbing in a turbulent sea. With a bit of luck we’d catch her during the ebb and not the flow.

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I forced four Calorie Mate bars into my parched mouth, the dry biscuits sticking to my palate as an indicator to increase the fluid intake. With 400 calories now beginning their conversion into energy, I took the lead, marching slowly but steadily up the array of stone steps that lead to the high point. I pushed all the way to the high point without a break, as the clouds had once again pushed off the plateau. At the top of Mt. Gozen, I finally caught sight of what makes Hakusan so special, for Mt. Gozen is just one of a trio of volcanic cones, dotted with pristine volcanic lakes and patches of lingering snow.

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Dropping my pack among the exposed rocks, I chatted with a Vietnamese team of climbers who had come from Kanazawa for a taste of Japan’s alpine offerings. Most of the other hikers were either from the Hokuriku or Kansai regions, so I felt right at home exchanging pleasantries and mountain information in the warm sunshine. It’s not very often that you can sit at the summit of a sea-facing 2700-meter volcano in calm winds and a t-shirt and live to tell about it.

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Fumito eventually reached the top, and the two of us drifted into various states of reverie. I reflected upon the stark difference of scenery that fog-free weather can make, while Fumito sucked on his cigarette like it was his last. He’s tried to give up the addiction several times, but the urge to puff had always been stronger. Regardless, he is probably the most mindful smoker in this entire country, always retreating to an unoccupied corner to satisfy his urges.

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The cloud had once again swept over the plateau, so instead of dropping down to the lakes, we retreated back to Murodo in time for lunch. We feasted on udon noodles in their clear Kansai broth, a taste I have grown fond of over the years. I can’t stand the dark soups of the Kanto region. It’s as if Tokugawa Ieyasu forgot to bring along chefs from Kyoto when he moved the capital to Edo and had to improvise his broth by adding soy sauce, the worst possible ingredient available at the time. The same can be said of monjayaki, which looks just like a failed attempt at okonomiyaki, made by someone who had never eaten a real version of Osaka’s staple dish.

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The noodles fueled us for the long climb back to Bettodeai. Back at the junction we veered left and onto the Sabo shindo, which switchbacked through the thick fog and down to an emergency hut that had also been recently rebuilt. Along the way, we passed several hundred other climbers, all of whom were planning on overnighting at Murodo. Among the throngs were a healthy smattering of children under the age of 10. I will only put my daughter through such hardships if the request for punishment is voluntary.

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Again, we were the only people descending this route, which seems preposterous as it is a much easier drop than the Kango path that we took on the ascent. I would much rather climb an impossibly steep trail than suffer through a knee-knocking descent. Besides, isn’t a clockwise circumambulation a sign of respect to the deities?

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The route, to our utter astonishment, skirts a concrete forest road in immaculate condition. The concrete follows a mountain stream until terminating at a corrugated-metal structure housing a pulley system for transporting supplies to the mountain huts. With the system resembling that of a ski gondola, it’s no wonder they just don’t open a proper ropeway for lazy tourists. Perhaps that is something in the works in time for the 2020 Olympics, in which one of the events will probably be ‘Sacred Peak Bagging’.

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Adjacent to the gondola structure is what can only be described as a public works project gone awry, a virtual lego-block, multi-tiered network of concrete dams that rises the entire length of the valley to source of the stream itself. One strong volcanic tremor would likely send the entire structure cascading down to the trailhead far below. Despite Hakusan’s designation as both a national park and one of Japan’s 3 most sacred peaks, the environmental destruction continues unchecked.

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Back in the treeline, the trail meandered through a pristine forest of towering hardwoods. In these healthy forests, I always scan the tops of the larger trees in order to catch sight of any black bears lounging in the natural hammocks above the chaos below. Pausing beneath once such tree, I raised the lens, only to find later upon closer inspection that there may have been an ursine beast lazing in the afternoon sun. You be the judge.

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Fumito and I were both in pain by the time we reached the shuttle bus stop at the trailhead. My shoes have overstayed their welcome, creating hotspots on my battered feet from the worn-out treads and weakened cushioning system. Or maybe I’m just getting too old for these 1500-meter vertical ascent/descent day hikes.

Mt. Azami gnawed away at my conscience like a caterpillar on a sakura leaf, but opportunities for a rematch did not present themselves until Paul and Josh came to inquire about another trip. Seizing the chance to revisit the area, we marked off a weekend in mid-May and hoped for more favorable conditions from both the weather gods and the intestinal deities.

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Paul missed his connecting train, so after a bit of a hiccup we once again met at Haibara station and headed to the same supermarket as the previous year to stock up on supplies. This time we added instant noodles for reinforcements in case the curry packs didn’t work their caloric magic and just around 11am we reached the trailhead parking lot, which was even more packed than our first trip.

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Trails tend to be much easier the second time around, as we knew what to expect. The water crossings did not pose any problems, but Paul’s slight head cold did slow our progress a bit. He looked a little worse for wear, but we encouraged him as best we could under the stellar sunshine and pleasant breezes seeping down from the ridge high above up. It took only an hour to reach the water source just below the grassy plateau. Josh pushed on to scope out possible camping options – we’d do anything to avoid the mayhem of the large hiking groups. I sat with Paul as he gathered his remaining reserves of energy for the final rise to our sheltered lunch spot.

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We sat under the open-air shelter, the same one we had used the previous year to prepare our meals. Josh informed us that there were plenty of shaded camping spots in the beech forests on the northern slopes just off the abandoned ski runs. Lunch was devoured in near-record time as Paul collapsed on a grassy slope for a bit of a rest. We were really starting to worry about him and encouraged him to have a proper nap once we had set up camp.

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In the forested reaches of the plateau, camping parties were dotted at pleasant intervals – not too close for comfort this time around. There was plenty of space to go around but completely flat spaces were few and far between. Luckily this time I opted for a simple canopy in lieu of a proper tent, so I found the perfect grassy niche and dropped my kit there as a reminder of other parties not to get too close. Josh and Paul set up nearby while I gathered stones for our fire pit.

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Once set up was complete, Paul collapsed in his tent and could hardly move. He was done for the day, and we could only hope his condition would improve after a bit of shut-eye. Josh and I strapped on the day packs and hit the trail in high spirits. We only made it about 20 meters out of camp before running into another hiking party with one familiar member. “Wes?”, came the voice. I turned around and stood face-to-face with Yukako, a woman who had joined our last gathering back in the autumn. She introduced me to her hiking companions before we parted ways. Dreadfully, they were headed down that same day after a morning ascent of Hinokizuka. It would have been nice to share our campfire with a group of cheery bright-eyed Osakans, but it was not to be.

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From the plateau, the path skirts the edge of the abandoned ski fields until reaching the summit of Maeyama. From there, it was a pleasant walk along the undulating ridge glistening with fresh greenery and vibrant moss. The cooler temperatures this spring had kept the snakes at bay as well, so things were definitely going our way. It took about an hour to top out on Azami’s rocky perch, whose exposed summit afforded spellbinding vistas of Odai-ga-hara and the Omine mountains. The afternoon haze reduced visibility somewhat, but it sure beat the drenching rains and thick fog that would’ve blotted out the views had we attempted this mountain the previous year.

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It took nearly the same amount of time to retrace our steps back into camp, where luckily no one else had encroached our space. Paul was just beginning to emerge from his afternoon comatose, looking and feeling much better. They got started on the campfire while I set up my shelter. I had recently bought this shelter from Locus Gear and was keen to give it a test run. Not expecting any morning dew or fog, I opted to go without a sleeping bag cover and just use the bug net for protection against the mosquitos.

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Settled around the fire we soon became, munching down on chickpea curry and chunks of french bread. Josh cracked the beers like a high school kid on his first outing, his drunken monologue leaving us in stitches until he passed out after retreating to his tent to fetch something. With the full moon now risen, Paul and I headed out to the plateau to shoot the night scenery.

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Morning came calm and clear, with more glorious sunshine and nary a cloud in sight. We cooked up breakfast and coffee, which set my bowels in motion again. I retreated further uphill, digging a hole next to a downed tree and deposited my load, only to find that I had misplaced my toilet paper. I was pretty sure that I had brought it with me when I came up there. I frantically searched all around before limping into camp to borrow some tissues from Josh. By the time I had made it back to the toilet there were literally hundreds of black flies devouring my excrement.

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Since Paul felt a bit better, we embarked on a morning excursion to the summit of nearby Mt. Kunimi which, at 1420 meters above sea level, sits higher than Mt. Azami. The steep climb took about 30 minutes to reach, so we continued along the ridge for another hour or so until reaching the shores of an idyllic, cordiform pond that would surely be packed with star-crossed lovers if the forest roads had made it this far north.

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It was hard not to be happy with such remarkable scenery and cooperative weather patterns. We continually had to remind ourselves that we were still in the Kansai region and not strolling along a swooping ridgeline in Nagano.

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Once back at camp, we cooked up noodles for lunch and broke down the shelters before dropping back down to the parking lot. Could Myojin-daira possibly be Kansai’s best back-country campground? Both visits have been impressive to say the least, but such bold conclusions could not be made with some sort of comparative analysis. Perhaps next year the three of us will head to the Omine mountains to see how it measures up to Myojin’s laid-back vibe.

Late July seemed like a really great time to start section hiking the Takashima Trail. The long-distance path follows the Japan Divide through some of Kansai’s most rugged and varied scenery.  The path starts at Kunizakai kogen snow park, climbs up the ridge and undulates until reaching Mt. Norikura, the first of 12 peaks along the 80-km trail. From there it’s a series of abrupt climbs and steep ascents along the saddleback ridge until reaching Mt. Akasaka, where I could descend to Makino kogen for a hot bath and ice cream.

A quick scan of the weather brought a favorable high-pressure system, so after a fitful sleep with a wriggling toddler, I loaded up the pack and caught the 7:45am train from Osaka to Makino station on the northern reaches of Lake Biwa. Somewhere between Osaka and Kyoto it occurred to me that I might have forgotten my memory card for my camera. I shuffled through my pack and confirmed my fears. At Makino station I alighted and walked down to the beach to the nearest Family Mart, but unfortunately they did not carry any memory cards. Perhaps the manager was a bit old-fashioned, as packs of Fuji 400 speed film lined the shelves where the usual store would stock their digital camera supplies. I retreated back to the station and searched in vain for a coin locker to deposit my camera, but there wasn’t much at the station aside from an attendant with too much time on his hands. Rather than leave it with him, I opted to just carry it as dead weight, as I could use the extra kilograms to work out the thigh muscles.

The bus dropped me off at the gated entrance to Kunizakai, whose massive parking lot lay empty and the rest house and restaurants boarded up for the summer. The place was utterly deserted, as if everyone had gone on vacation. The ski lifts fan out in a finger-like way, and with no signposts in sight, I opted to head in the pinkie direction, if the ski resort was left-handed. I made it about 100 meters into the bunny slope, just before the black diamond run merges with the main course on my right. I was standing just below the toilet block, on the green slopes of the following map, when I first caught sight of it.

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A black bear made its way down the black diamond run gracefully, with a steady yet smooth rhythm, crossing the path directly in front of me, no more than 50 meters in front, to be exact. It paid me no heed, as it was too preoccupied with crossing the field to get to the cool, comforting waters of the mountain stream, which flowed with a trickle on my left. The beast looked lean, as if it had been a while since its last good meal. Not wanted to tempt it with fresh flesh, I retreated back to the boarded up rest house and sat in the shade. My heart was racing, not because of the encounter with the bear, but with the regret of not bringing my memory card. I’d been waiting to see a bear up close for years now, but with no proof, there’d be nothing but doubt from my friends. A police sketch of the culprit has been issued in lieu of photographic evidence.

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On the train ride earlier, upon finding my forgetful error, I joked to myself that I would probably see a bear on my hike today, not realizing that it would actually happen, and so close to the trailhead no less. I pulled out the map and discovered that the trail to Norikura actually begins towards the index finger of the snow park. Perhaps the bear just came out to remind me that I was indeed going on the wrong direction.

The next bus wasn’t for 3 hours, and the chances of encountering that exact same bear were pretty low (unless I were to take a dip in that mountain stream). Without a camera to document the proceedings, I made quick work of the ski runs, reaching the top of the highest lift in a heap of sweat and exhaustion. I pushed on, bushwhacking through the dense, overgrown forest until popping out on the real trail just a few minutes later. The trail ascended through a healthy beech forest with a smattering of claw marks on the larger trees. I set a turnaround time of noon in order to catch the 1:22pm bus back to Makino. Traversing all the way over to Mt. Akasaka without a camera seemed like an exercise in futility, so I compromised by deciding on an up-and-back of Norikura as a recce for a future section hike in a cooler time of year.

The path was easy to follow, and once on the ridge the vistas opened up towards the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, hidden in a haze of smog and cloud. Hakusan would definitely be visible from here on a clear day, and the views down to Lake Biwa are some of the best from any mountain in Shiga. Occasionally a breeze would blow in from the north, helping to evaporate the sweat accumulating on my back. I was starting to overheat, but decided to push on without a break until reaching the summit. The top was marked by a concrete bunker that looked more like a storage tank than any welcoming accommodation. The door was bolted shut, so there was no chance of peeking inside. My clock read 12:15pm, a little later than planned but I knew the descent would be much faster than the climb up. I broke out the frozen Aquarius sports drink I had bought earlier, and used the thawed bottle to help cool down my neck, face, and forehead. I forced down a salted rice ball in order to restore the saline balance and started back down the path after pausing for only a few minutes.

The return journey took just 30 minutes to reach the top of the lifts, where I kept a vigilant eye out for that bear. It did not return and I made it down to the bus stop with 10 minutes to spare before the bus.

On my last visit, I vowed to never return, but something kept drawing me back. Like a page in a diary you’re not supposed to read, I just had to find some kind of redeeming quality to a plateau scarred by the scalpel of development. Would Fukada himself be spinning in his grave to see what has become of his beloved mountain? Perhaps not, as his ‘famous’ book refers to the “toll road” that “had been built into the heart of the mountain.” Could this be the Odaigahara Skyline, which now runs to within spitting distance of the high point?

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On the long, winding drive up the skyline, the bus vanished into a thick wall of cloud that frequently lingers around the plateau. Clear days are hard to come by, and even the beautiful sunshine and crystal clear skies of Osaka could not penetrate the fog fortress. I disembarked into this blanket of mist and immediately retreated into the souvenir shop/restaurant to use the facilities. I also inquired about the closing time of the noodle shop, as I’d planned to grab a bowl before boarding the final bus at 3:30. I had roughly five hours to spend in my search for that spark.

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The long-familiar trail to the high point starts in front of the visitor’s center and is in incredibly good shape despite the heavy foot traffic. On this cool, misty July morning, I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of crowds, as my other two experiences came later in the season, when flocks of camera wielding tourists line the paths in search of that perfect autumn leaf. I passed just one trio hikers before reaching the main junction below the peak of Hide-ga-take. A lookout platform had recently been built here, as a way of keeping the actual summit from getting overloaded with hikers. Signposts teased visitors about the splendid views of Mt. Fuji from this vantage point, but in the dense fog I could do little else than use my imagination.

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The summit was teeming with hikers, including a rowdy group from Mie Prefecture who were well into an altered state of inebriety, with the leader chain-smoking away like he was at his neighborhood izakaya. In the short interval between drags I moved in to have a friendly chat, and was rewarded with homemade inari sushi as well as the famed Yoshino delicacy of sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. As we chatted, the sky lightened up and the cloud dropped, revealing a sea of cumulus stretching out to eternity. I climbed to the second story of the concrete resthouse to take in the views. Unfortunately, the Omine mountains were still hiding in their own bank of menacing cloud, but it was a much better alternative than fighting off the strong winds and horizontal rains. A quartet of deer sat just off the lee slope of the narrow summit, grazing with an air of accepted indifference.

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I retraced my steps back to the junction and continued traversing south towards Daijyakura cliffs on the far end of the plateau. The cloud stayed low, affording vistas back towards Mt. Hide’s knuckle perch. A series of wooden steps have been built across much of the plateau, and the unexpected sunshine had begun to dry things out a bit. These wooden walkways are slicker than ice rinks when covered with a layer of water, but on the dry promenade I could focus on the scenery more than my footfalls.

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And what scenery it was. An endless carpet of bamboo grass stretching out beneath the boardwalks, with needle-like stalks of dead trees poking out at irregular intervals. Apparently this used to be a healthy forest until a very strong typhoon swept through and knocked all of the trees off their foundations. The toppled trees allowed more sunlight to penetrate the forest floor, which dried out the moss and allowed the bamboo grass to thrive. The grass, in turn, attracted the deer, who ate the bark off the trees and helped to destroy the remaining forest.

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I pushed on, ignoring the junction loop trail back to the parking lot and continued towards the cliffs. Dropping out of the sunlight and back into the fog belt triggered a sudden change inside of me. For here the true magic of the place presented itself, in a stunning reminder of the necessity of condensation on the delicate ecosystem. The beech trees looked happier and full of life, as this section of moss-laden woods lay sheltered from the strong winds that often push through the massif.

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The wildlife seemed to welcome the change as well, as a badger crossed the trail just in front of me and foraged through the grass in search of an early afternoon meal.

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Soon I reached another flatland, with a giant statue of emperor Jimmu standing guard. Fukada mentions this statue in his book, but how in the world did they get that thing up here? It must’ve been erected around the same time that the skyline was complete, which leads me to believe that Fukada did actually visit when the road did run all the way up the plateau, though in his time I sure it was a simple dirt track and not the meandering asphalt serpent of today.

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I reached the junction for the cliff lookout point and dropped down for a look, or at least a glimpse of what the area looked like. The cloud still had a tight grip around the towering beech trees lining the narrow path. It took about 10 minutes to reach the observation point, lined by a chain railing to keep the tourists from tumbling down into the void. Apparently it’s a vertigo-inducing spectacle in clear weather, but with nothing to see I felt safe walking all the way to the edge to peer down into the white void.

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I sat for a while and waited for the clouds to lift, but the wait was in vain. Rather than feeling dejected, I silently relished in hidden delight, for this gave me an excuse to come back in the future.

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Back at the junction, the route passed through a tunnel of rhododendron bushes before losing close to 200 meters of vertical altitude until reaching a clear brook. A suspension bridge offers safe passage for visitors, and once across the stream the long climb back to the parking lot commences. Signs on my left warned that the trails of Nishi Odai-ga-hara are off-limits to those without special permission to enter. It seems as if the higher ups are finally starting to care about conservation.

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I reached the parking lot around 3pm and had a quick bowl of noodles before boarding the bus. Maybe it was the humidity, or just the weather, but the crowds were much more manageable and dare I say pleasant on this third trip to the plateau. Perhaps the green season is indeed the best time to experience the magic of Odai-ga-hara. It may be too early to tell, but I’m really starting to warm up to the place. I think a future trip to Nishi Odai-ga-hara may just seal the deal.

Reference

One Hundred Mountains of Japan by Kyūya Fukada, translated by Martin Hood, University of Hawaii Press, 2015. More information about Fukada’s mountains can be found here, and the translation can be purchased here.

Late May and a break in my busy schedule had me scrambling for a quick excursion to the final two mountains in the Daiko range. By setting up base camp at Myojin-daira, I hoped to knock off both Myojin and Hinokizuka  in one fell swoop. I needed some wingmen, however, so I turned to Paul M. and Josh, my two companions from Mt. Tsubone, which sits just across the valley from my target peaks.

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Our meeting point was Haibara station, where we loaded the gear into the back of Josh’s kei car and picked up provisions at the local supermarket. The drive out to Higashi Yoshino village was slow yet pleasant, following the meandering Hōno river until it converged with the Takami river and up a secluded valley towards the rustic hamlet. Higashi Yoshino is best known for the last officially recorded sighting of the Japanese wolf, which wandered into the village back in 1905 for a one-way ticket to the taxidermist. There have been several reported sightings in the decades since, but with the massive post-war clear cutting of the broadleaf forests, it is unlikely that the Canis lupis could have survived such habitat destruction into modern times.

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Just before the village office, the route abandoned the river and forked left, past a quiet hot spring and campground and towards the trailhead of Omata, which lies at the terminus of a concrete logging road. We squeezed in among the dozens of other vehicles lining the shoulder at the locked gate over the road and shuffled through gear. Josh and Paul sifted through their sleeping gear while I stuffed excess provisions into gaps in my already overloaded pack. In order to shed weight, I opted to just bring the rain fly of my tent and supplement it with a bug net to keep the mosquitos at bay. Shortly after 11am, we shouldered the packs under the azure sky and marched onwards.

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The initial part of the track follows the potholed forest road all the way up the river valley as it terminates at one of those ubiquitous concrete dams lining just about every single mountain stream in this hydro-rich country. A rat snake sunned itself on the warm pavement as a series of narrower dirt tracks fanned out from the main road. A healthy army of cedar trees lined both sides of the river bank, making us wonder as to what the highlands had in store for us.

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We crossed a metal bridge spanning the river and left the forest road behind. The track hugged the eastern bank of the river as vistas opened up intermittently behind us to the south. The upper reaches of adjacent ridges glistened with fresh deciduous greenery – perhaps there are still areas of pristine beauty trapped up there.

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A series of four river crossings pushed us higher up the constricted gorge and spit us out at the base of the 50-meter high Myojin falls. We pushed up a series of switchbacks until reaching a turn in the trail that provided a vista of the multi-tiered waterfall. We rested here, admiring the power of nature while filling our bellies with calories for the impending climb. A few switchbacks later, past the top of the falls, the planted cedars suddenly gave way to a brilliant and hearty beech forest swaying gently in the early summer breezes. My spirits rose, providing an extra boost in my gait as I tried to imagine the scene of just 150 years ago, when the wolves still called this place home.

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The water source was reached after a solid twenty minute push. The map indicated a water source much closer to our intended campsite, so we pushed on without weighing down our packs further. In less than 10 minutes, we popped out of the forest and into a vast, green flatlands bursting with plantlife. We dropped off the kit and ventured over to an open-air shelter to have a proper lunch and to consider our options for pitching the tent. Just above our lunch shelter, a rustic log cabin hut sat peacefully on the hillside, looking like it was dropped here from a ski hamlet in Colorado.

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Below us, on the flattest part of the plain, an older, well-seasoned tin-roofed shack stood guard as a reminder of Myojin Daira’s not-too-distant past. During the ski boom of the 60s, ski lifts were constructed here, and the building is the remnants of the old ski lodge that once catered to the budding ski enthusiasts. Nearby, parts of the original ski lifts still stand tall, covered by a thick layer of rust and overgrown weeds. An on-line search about the history of the ski fields came up empty, so perhaps it was not a very popular place. I am sure the locals in Omata village would have more first-hand knowledge about the area, but judging by the amount of garbage strewn about the forest behind the lifts, it must have been a popular place in its heyday.

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Josh and I went off in search of the water source, but came back empty-handed, as the stream was barely more than a trickle. We managed to get enough water to hold us off on our afternoon hike, but knew we’d need to backtrack down to that first water source later in order to see ourselves through the evening. We set up camp in a flat area closest to the path back down to the water and stashed our gear inside. Despite the plethora of vehicles in the parking lot, there were no other overnight guests to be seen, as the low-pressure system due to move in that evening had kept other campers at bay.

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Clouds drifted high above the surrounding peaks as we pushed on to the top of the old ski run until reaching the ridge, where the contours led us to the summit of Mt. Myojin, my 95th peak. There were no views to speak of on the narrow, tree-smothered knob along the ridge. If we kept going for another couple of hours, we would reach the summit of Mt. Ikegoya, a mountain I had reached just two weeks prior.

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We veered west, dropping off the ridge and into a vast deciduous forest that would lead us to the summit of Hinokizuka, my second peak of the day. It would be a two-hour round-trip journey, but with plenty of daylight left and our home for the evening already in place, we cruised along the pristine ridge joyfully, catching up on recent news and pondering the future. At one point along the trail, we all heard the strange clicking sound coming from what we presumed was some kind of insect. I continued on, hearing a yelp from behind me as Paul jumped back in horror. His right foot was just inches from tramping directly on the body of a pit viper, who was curled up in the attack position. Apparently my footfall had angered the beast, who shook its tail in disgust. Though they do not have rattles to speak of, the poisonous snakes can still shake their tails when agitated, as seen in this remarkable video.

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The snake sat frozen, head cocked in striking position, while the three of us looked on in disbelief. Had Paul’s reflexes been just a few seconds slower, then we would be dealing with an airlift to the nearest hospital. The close call had kicked the adrenal glands into overdrive, giving us a jolt of energy. We cruised past a group of four ultralight campers passing around a bottle of wine and shared our enthralling encounter with them. At the summit of Hinokizuka oku-mine, we took in the vistas and thanked our lucky stars for avoiding a catastrophe. I broke out the smoked pistachios, which went well with the granola and chocolate bars I had stuffed in my day pack. It was mountain #96, and there was no other place I would rather be.

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Our vantage point revealed dark clouds billowing up on the horizon. The breeze had intensified into a light gale, and my barometer reading indicated that we would likely be on the receiving end of the bad weather before dawn. We raced over to the summit of Hinokizuka, the twin sister of the mountain before retracing our (careful) steps back to camp.

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What greeted us upon arrival astonished us, for a group of a dozen university students had set up their sprawling camp directly beside us. The meadow easily has room for at least 50 tents, so why on earth would someone pitch their tent so close? This is definitely a ‘safety in numbers’ mentality that a lot of Japanese people just can’t seem to shake, for the majority of hikers in this country go to the mountains in order to be with people rather than escape from them.

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Paul got the fire started while Josh and I dropped back down to the first water source to fill up on supplies. On our way we crossed paths with a trail runner who had also dropped by for a drink. Back at the open-air shelter next to our campsite, I chatted with the runner, wondering where he was headed at such a late hour. “I’ve just come from Odai-ga-hara”, explained the madman, “I started at 4am and have run all the way here, over 50 kilometers. From here, I’ll keep running to Mt. Takami, where I will pick up my bicycle and ride all the way back to Odai-ga-hara to pick up my car.” I sat there with my jaw hung low, wondering what possesses such people to push the boundaries of endurance. “Oh, I’m training for a 100km race”, came the reply. And here I am, thinking that climbing 100 mountains in Kansai was something special.

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The rain held off until we had finished our campfire stories, and shortly before midnight we drifted off to sleep, only to be woken just two hours later by the university group literally camping on our doorstep . They spend the next four hours, in heavy rain no doubt, breaking down camp and preparing their morning meal in the loudest voices possible. Some things I will never ever comprehend, no matter how long I live in this land of no whispers.

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Once they left at 6am, we drifted back to sleep for an hour before the limitations of our shelters became appallingly apparent. My sleeping pad was sitting in the middle of a small lake that had leeched under my rain tarp sometime during the night. Josh and Paul, in the meantime, were being hypnotized by the Chinese water torture dripping down from their tent roof. Everything was a soggy mess, but we could do nothing other than let out a collective sigh.

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I unzipped my shelter, squinting through some of the thickest fog I had ever laid my eyes on just to catch a glimpse of my companion’s tent. Squirming out like a caterpillar emerging from a sticky cocoon, I grabbed the cooking gear and stumbled up to the shelter to start boiling water for coffee and oatmeal. Josh and Paul soon joined me in bleary-eyed disbelief, as we continually cursed our unwelcome guests from the previous evening. The caffeine and fibre set my bowels in motion, as I ducked into the forest to scout out a place to make my deposit. I dug a hole with my trekking pole and relieved myself, cleansing as best I could in order to keep the remaining toilet paper from getting submerged in the damp murk. I returned to the shelter, packing up the cooking gear as we started the painstaking task of breaking down camp. I felt a gaseous build-up and bent over to relieve the pressure by flatulating, with some unwelcome results.

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“Shit”, I screamed, as the fecal matter exploded, soiling my undergarments and hiking pants. I dropped everything, rushing back over to where I had previous unloaded and dug yet another hole and tried to cleanse everything with damp leaf litter, but it was utterly hopeless. I sulked back into camp with my tail between my legs. By sheer luck, I had packed some rain pants in case of inclement weather and changed into them. Nylon isn’t the best hiking material, but I suppose it’s better than riding bareback through the forest.

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Josh and Paul nearly wet themselves when hearing of my predicament, but nothing compared to how an elderly solo hiker reacted. He had just climbed up from the trailhead below, the first hiker of the new day, as he listened intently to my story. I guess my delivery in Japanese was spot on, thanks to my training on the streets of Osaka, for the gray-haired man burst out into uncontrollable laughter, a literal ROFL, if you will. In all my years I had never seen any Japanese person laugh so hard and with such unrestrained panache.

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Our original plan was to set off on a morning ascent of Mt. Azami, a two-hour return hike of one of the 100 mountains of Kinki, but considering the weather and my unpredictable bowels, we voted in favor of just returning back down to the car. We took our time, admiring the serenity and ethereal beauty of the thick forests smothered in thicker fog.

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Despite the success of the two-for-one mission, it was overall a pretty shitty trip, pun intended. We knew, however, that a rematch with Mt. Azami the following summer would leave us with a better taste in our mouths.

 

Mt. Ikegoya – Momentum

Mt. Ikegoya is one monster of a mountain, and the make-or-break peak in my Kansai 100 quest. Check this one off the list and it’s a relatively easy cruise to the finish line. The 1000-meter vertical elevation change is contained within one 2-1/2km stretch of trail that is not for the faint-of-heart. Throw in a vertigo-inducing traverse above a raging waterfall, and sprinkle in a small army of blood-sucking leeches and you’ve got the makings of a true adventure.

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Nao and I set off at dawn on a calm and clear day in mid-May for the trailhead nestled deep in the Daiko mountains on the Nara-Mie prefectural border. The only access is via the north along a narrow poorly-maintained gravel road past Hasu dam and the phalanges of the accompanying lake sitting at the confluence of dozens of lush mountain streams. Our plan was to follow on such tributary by the name of Miya-no-tani all the way up to its headwaters, where the true climb commenced, but our first challenge involved getting there.

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The road to Hasu dam was a double-laned asphalt bylane that looked as if it could accommodate a battalion of army tanks, but beyond that we inched along a meandering. potholed lane littered with rockfall and landslide debris. Every year sections of the route get washed out in the summer rains and maintenance crews struggle with the upkeep, but luckily the road had recently been touched up and we forced our way to the small parking lot marking the entrance to the trail.

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Initially the path traversed high above the river bed along a series of metal walkways before dropping down to the waters edge, where a combination of faded paint marks on rocks and strips of tattered pink tape offered guidance in our upstream pursuit of the source of the river. Nao had explored this section of track once before several years ago before being chased out by hundreds of river leeches that climbed his trousers and abseiled from the trees. Our timing, however, was perfect, as the segmented worms were still lying dormant in the soil beneath our feet, patiently awaiting the summer rains.

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Whenever the walls of the gorge closed in, the trail switchbacked up to more gentler slopes, crossing yet more metal bridges and walkways as we pushed higher and higher up the valley. Despite the undulating path, we had not even covered a hundred vertical meters in that first hour of scrambling. We hit a fork in the river, marked by a signpost indicating waterfalls in either direction. While the 40-minute detour to the 80-meter Kazeore falls, one of Japan’s 100 falls, seemed tempting, we knew that such diversions could cost us precious daylight hours that we could certainly use on the descent.

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We turned right here, following the steel ladders and fixed ropes further to the base of Taka-taki, or the ‘tall one’. This 60-meter high beauty drops straight off a cliff face and into an emerald pool that would make quite the summer watering hole if not for the leeches. After crossing the stream, a signpost warned hikers of the next section of the trail – a harrowing traverse above the falls.

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Pausing a bit for a refilling of liquids and a chocolate bar, Nao and I climbed the jagged switchbacks up the 60-degree slopes to the base of a band of cliffs draped with fixed ropes. A slip here would be fatal, and judging by the size of the metal signpost in the river bed, such falls are all too common for those unfortunate souls with two left feet. We hung tightly to the striated rock, making sure we had four points of contact with the earth at all times. It would be an even trickier route to descend, but fortunately for us we had our eye on an alternative trail that dropped down an adjacent valley.

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Once above the falls we lost the trail completely by mistakenly climbing a spur to our right instead of continuing upstream. Only by cross referencing our GPS waypoints with the paper map did we realize our mistake, but all was corrected by backtracking back to the river bed and continuing on towards the proper junction, which we reached at midday.

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The paper map had this next section of trail marked as a 1-hour, 45-minute ascent so we dropped our gear and nibbled on rice balls and almonds. We had a 700-meter climb staring us straight in the face and really nowhere to go except up. It was a short section of switchbacks to reach the beginning of the spur, which quickly became an all-out war with exposed tree roots. Forcing our way on all fours up the improvised staircase, we made steady progress up towards the ridgeline, which lay out of sight somewhere high above us. We thought it wiser to simply put away our GPS devices, as frequent glances at the contours would only serve as reminders of how much further we had to go.

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Voices above us crescendoed as we overtook our first climbing party of the day, a trio of sweaty, middle-aged men who stepped aside to let us pass. Once above the 1000-vertical meter mark the angle abated, revealing large swaths of virgin beech trees sitting on a soft carpet of wild grasses and dried foliage. It was easily one of the most breathtaking stretches of unspoiled forest in the Kansai area, and a reminder of the power of the Daiko mountains.

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After all, it was these same slopes that provided the last hideout of the Japanese wolf, which was last seen back in the Meiji era in a small village on the leeward side of Ikegoya’s rugged slopes.

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We topped out just one hour leaving the river bed behind. Though the tree-lined summit afforded no vistas of the surrounding mountains, it was still a pleasant place to relax and take in what nature had to offer. It was my 94th mountain, and one of the best to date. I brewed up a cup of coffee in preparation for the long, knee-knocking drop back to civilization.

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Our return route required a 30-minute stroll along the ridge line past the small pond that gives Ikegoya its namesake before reaching a junction at the summit of Mt. Kirifuri, where the vistas finally started to open up. Unfortunately, the vistas were not the only thing to reveal themselves, as my caffeinated drink on the summit kickstarted my bowels. I dropped off the trail to dig a hole for my deposit of fertilizer as Nao waited patiently.

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We veered right at the junction and followed a pleasant strolling ridge that ran parallel to the steep spur we had climbed earlier. To our left, we could make out the flat highlands of Mt. Myojin and Hinokizuka, two of the remaining six mountains on the list and the last two in this part of Kansai. If I had an extra day I could have easily knocked them off from here, but as luck would have it, they would have to wait for another time. Our trail followed the contours of the ridge for well over an hour until reaching the remains of an old cable car system used by loggers. From here, the virgin forest yielded to the dreadful plantations of cedar and cypress that make my heart sink every time I see them.

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The path terminated at an immense clear-cut area lined by fabric fences to keep the deer from destroying the bark of the newly planted trees. A signpost indicated us to unfasten the ropes of the fence, where we entered this area that looked like something out of a warzone. To make matters of worse, the trail followed the tracks of a logging monorail that ran straight down the mountain without a single switchback. The knees took a beating as we searched for any way to prevent ourselves from tumbling uncontrollably down the barren slopes. It was a drop of nearly 400 vertical meters directly down to the valley floor, where we met up with the forest road once again and limped back to the car.

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We had eluded the leeches and knocked off the mountain in one massive assault. With only 6 more mountains to go, I finally had the momentum to get these Kansai 100 peaks off my chest so I could move onto other things.

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With the cold winter now a distant memory, the spring gales of early April brought a stable climbing window for my final mountain of the Kumano region. Steeped in tradition and tales of long-lost samurai, the peak of the sleeping rat called forth like a maneki neko cat. With Ayako set to move out of Shingu in just a few weeks, it was my last chance to knock off the mountain that lies the greatest horizontal distance from Osaka. Most trekkers opt for an overnight stay, but with a bit of preplanning, I had a window of a couple of hours in which to summit the peak. Time would be of the essence.

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It took nearly 4 hours by the fastest train to reach the terminus at Shingu station, but Ayako greeted me with a cheerful smile as I disembarked and stretched out my sore bottom. The lunchtime bells had already rung as she eased the vehicle up the switchbacks to the start of the modest hike. In order to save time, I devoured calories in the passengers seat while studying the maps: it looks like we could just make it up and back before the final train back to Osaka, which left Shingu just before 6pm.

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The trail was marked by a metal ladder scaling a concrete retaining wall on the northern edge of the narrow forest road. A broad shoulder on the access road afforded space for a couple of cars, but on this quiet Saturday afternoon there was not another hiker in sight. Perhaps the bulk of visitors opt for the cooler temperatures of the autumn, when the lush foliage transforms into brilliant hues of crimson and pumpkin. Our hike started out with a bang, for less than 10 meters into our ascent, a meter-long rat snake presented itself as if it were offering a guided tour up the slopes. If it weren’t for my trekking pole leading the way, I surely would have trampled directly on its back, but luckily it slithered away into the safe confines of a moss-covered boulder. Perhaps this was the origin of the name Nenotomari – a dragon could have haunted these steep slopes in the ancient times, gobbling up rodents offered by the frightened villagers who tracked up to appease the fierce giant. Or perhaps not.

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The path switchbacked through the a damp cedar forest lathed with moss and toppled trees, but as soon as the ridge was breached the deforestation waned and gave way to a healthy mixed-leaf forest teeming with songbird and dotted with freshly-fallen camellia flowers. It was a pleasant stroll along the undulating ridge, through a tunnel of trees just beginning to sprout their annual coat of green. Claw marks on one of the bigger hemlock trees served as a reminder that it is still very much a black bear habitat, but exact numbers of the dwindling creatures remain to be seen. Sightings are few and far between, and hikers who don their bear bells serve no other purpose than to squander any chances of seeing Japan’s unique fauna up close.

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Soon we reached a junction for the old route from Asama shrine. This route was victim to a landslide a few years ago and has fallen out of use. The track passes right over a towering cliff edge that has taken the lives of a few hikers throughout the years who have had the misfortune of losing their footing. Not wanting to tempt fate, we ignored this side trail to the cliffs and continued straight on towards our target peak. The ridge was simply stunning in the muted light of early afternoon. Exposed tree roots crisscrossed the ridge like a network of blood vessels of an emaciated child, while mossy rocks the size of suitcases lay strewn about in an chaotic fashion, as if placed intentionally by deranged minefield engineers.

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Chaos was interrupted in regular intervals by stacks of neatly-placed boulders, each placated by a namecard with the suffix tsuka, the character for grave. One such marker caught my eye: the grave of 75 people, but what could it mean? Was there some kind of plane crash or slaughter on these slopes?

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A bit of digging on-line revealed that during the 12th century Genpei War, scores of samurai lost their lives in these hills, and villagers trekked up to these slopes to build these monuments to commemorate their legacies. It is difficult to tell whether there are skeletal remains buried under the rocks, but one thing is for sure: it would be an eerie place to loiter around after dark, so we kept moving in order to keep that hypothesis untested.

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As the path rose towards the summit plateau, our heart sank in shock when the trail met up with a dirt logging road, where the woods turned back into that banal network of cedar and cypress. I was just about to elevate Nenotomari into my top 10 list of Kansai mountains, but such careless destruction meant the peak would be downgraded from business to economy class. We followed this road for a short time, opting to stay just off the road on the deciduous side of the ridge. If we looked strictly to our right side we could almost ignore the destruction on our left for the final push to the high point. The summit plateau afforded vistas like no other in this part of Wakayama. Directly behind us, due south, the aquamarine waters of the Pacific Ocean sat calmly along the edge of the rocky shores, while the southern section of the Omine mountains followed the flows of the Kumano river before terminating abruptly at Hongu shrine. A vast panorama spread out to the northwest as well, towards the Ooto mountain range that contained a pair of peaks remaining on the list.

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In a wooden box resembling a bird house, there sat a binder containing a mountain register. As we flipped through the pages, a set of roman characters stood out from the crowd of Japanese characters lining the parchment. Apparently on January 21st 2015, a one Robert De niro, from the United Stats America (sic), visited this prominent peak. I suppose that some Japanese hikers do have a sense of humor, or could it be that Travis Bickle himself felt obliged to pay his respects to the lost rats of the world?

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Every 12 years, this mountain is flooded with visitors paying their respects during the Year of the Rat. With the next rat year forecast for 2020, future climbers have just 3 more years of solitude before the zodiac hunters once again come calling. In fact, if you look at every sign of the Chinese Zodiac, you can be pretty sure as to which mountains will be crowded with each coming year. Take the current year of the monkey for instance. I, for one, would not climb Mt. Sanage in Aichi Prefecture anytime during 2016.

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After taking in the wonderful views, we retreated back to the car without incident. The rat snake had once again gone into hiding, and there were no paranormal activities around the mass graves lining the track. Back in Shingu, we had time for a quick coffee before I caught the final train of the evening back to Osaka. With all of the Kumano mountains now finished off,I would really need to find another excuse to come back to the area. I’m sure it won’t take long for another mountain to come and present itself.

 

Climbing the highest peak in every prefecture wouldn’t be easy, but with a little help from my friends it could be a little less intimidating. The previous day, in less than desire downpours, I had knocked off the highest mountain in Okinawa along a trail slippery with runoff and heavy with erosion. While hardly a monstrosity, the mountain did throw up some surprising challenges that took the form of habu snakes lurking in the shadows of the dense jungle floor. As I recovered in the common room of a guesthouse in Kabira bay on Ishigaki island, a young, brightly attired guest entered through the vestibule, dropping her sky blue Millet pack next to the other luggage tucked away in the far corner of the cozy space. She took a seat around the low, rectangular dining table and settled into our lively conversation. She appeared quite different from the other half a dozen beach-bumming guests of the penny-penching accommodation, her dark wavy locks tucked neatly under a red and beige Outdoor Research sun hat.

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She introduced herself as Megumi from Kumamoto city, and the conversation quickly shifted to the mountains, a subject that both of us shared with equal passion. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening engrossed in conversation about past hiking trips and future endeavors. After explaining my dream of climbing Japan’s prefectural summits, she invited me along to climb with a few of her other outdoor enthusiasts to Mt. Kunimi, the highest mountain in her prefecture and included on the list of Japan’s 300 Famous mountains. A chance to knock off another peak in Kyushu was too much to pass up, so a few months after our fateful encounter I cruised through the rice fields on the newly-christened Kyushu Shinkansen en route to the old, hilly castle town. I had been to Kumamoto once before for a brief stopover between the mountains of Unzen and Aso, but here way my first chance to see the historical town through the eyes of a local.

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After checking into a cheap guesthouse that doubled as a gourmet coffee shop, Megumi dropped by to shuttle me to a local restaurant to get acquainted with our climbing team. We squeezed into a cozy table in the corner of the bustling establishment while my host fired off food orders to the sure-footed staff. Megumi settled in beside a dark-haired guy with thick eyebrows and a million dollar smile that would surely make even the thickest girl swoon. He introduced himself as Tsubasa, a pharmaceutical researcher turned part-time mountaineer and photographer. He knowledge of alpine routes was stunning for someone dwelling so far from the loftier heights of Honshu. It turns out he was born and raised in Shiga Prefecture near the shores of Lake Biwa, a fellow Kansai partner with a thirst for adventure as satiated as my own. On my right sat a cute, bubbly girl by the name of Keiko, whose small face, dark complexion, and straight brown hair seemed more southeast Asian than the ghostly complexion of typical citizens of the rising sun. Due to the warm climate and ample sunshine, the women of Kyushu take on an exotic air and vibe that are enough to drive a grown man crazy. Despite the pheromones permeating from our companions, Tsubasa and I stayed on our best behavior, lest we draw the ire of our significant others.

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I had a difficult time sleeping that evening, a combination of the hormones released in our lively dinner and the remnants of the strong cappuccino still flowing through my throbbing blood vessels. Tossing and turning on the firm mattress in the deserted guesthouse, I focused on the impending climb of the 1739-meter mountain, a peak I knew next-to-nothing about. At least it appeared in Tsubasa’s Kyushu hiking guidebook. Thoughts of weather conditions dominated, as most of my summer ascents on Japan’s southerly island have been anything but cooperative. Eventually I drifted off into a deep, drooling, comatose state but was jerked out of my slumber by 6am morning call.

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Tsubasa’s red hatchback rolled up around 7am and I settled into the backseat alongside Keiko. Megumi helped Tsubasa navigate through the rural hamlets of the Kumamoto countryside. The rural route followed the narrow valleys of the southern part of Mashiki village, an area dominated by ancient tile-roofed structures still clinging to their feudal past. The road nudged just past the vestibules of these rustic buildings, the road built directly atop the old horse trails that once linked these secluded hamlets to their pre-Meiji daimyo lords. Occasionally we’d grind to a halt as a hunchbacked octogenarian crossed the road with the speed and agility of a box turtle.

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Out of the valleys we rose, along windy mountain roads barely wide enough to accommodate one-way traffic. Whenever a vehicle approached from the opposite direction we’d put the car in reverse, searching for the slightest shoulder that would give us a few extra inches of leeway. Luckily the traffic was few and far between and once over the mountain pass the byway widened to a more respectable span. Speaking of spans, a bit further up the valley we reached an immense suspension bridge crossing a nauseating drop down to a river covered in thick, green foliage. We vowed to cross this pedestrian walkway after our hike, as we needed to head back this way upon our return to Kumamoto city.

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Just past the bridge we left the comforts of the prefectural highway and inched up a gravel forest road in a sorry state of disrepair until reaching a large gate permanently bolted shut. A gnarled metal signpost pointed the way to the trailhead of Mt. Kunimi, so we shouldered the packs and I led the way, using my GPS for guidance. We soon passed the old trailhead with a hand-painted sign indicating hikers to use the newer path a further ten minutes up the shuttered road. It was after 11am when we our first footfall hit the soil of the overgrown trail. but we pushed on with determined drive through a forgotten thicket of planted cedar that rose straight up the spur without a single switchback. Using both our hands and feet for purchase, we literally crawled up the mountain like lions on the hunt for antelopes.

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Fortunately we soon reached a junction where the old trail met up with the main trail up the mountain, and the angle eased somewhat, the evergreen army yielding to a healthier and more diverse forest of aged hardwoods and beech. We picked our way over, under, and sometimes around a collection of felled trees blocking the path at regular intervals. No one had come along to do trail maintenance in quite some time, but despite the physical hindrances we made remarkably good time up the spur towards the ridge.

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The forest thinned out once we breached the 1500 vertical-meter mark, replaced by patches of wild grass punctuated by shards of granite rock anchored in place by towering columns of beech and hemlock. We climbed in a unison of smiles and delight, spellbound with the stark beauty of an island otherwise dominated by active volcanoes. Indeed, this mountain range seemed out of place, as if transplanted here from Shikoku by Izanagi in a fit of jealous rage.

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The spur eventually converged with the north-south ridge trail, marked by a sign indicating that the summit was only a five minute stroll away. So much for a leisurely walk along the ridge. A full traverse of the range is a preferred alternative to our rapid up-and-down assault on the mountain. The vistas towards neighboring Mt. Eboshi were blotted out by a bank of cloud, but through gaps in the mist to the north we could catch sight of the peaks of Miyazaki Prefecture. In fact, we were sitting directly on the border of the two prefectures, though Mt. Sobo, just twenty meters higher, lays claim to the highest point in Miyazaki.

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Under a cool, refreshing breeze we enjoyed our boxed lunch and shared our love of Japan’s mountains. My companions were all surprised to hear that I had finished scaling all of the Hyakumeizan and that I was attempting to touch down on the highest point of every prefecture. Their faces beamed with delight upon the news that the highest mountains of Saga and Fukuoka were still on my to-do list. “Let’s do them for sure,” claimed Tsubasa. It was here that I realized with the proper support and encouragement, these 47 mountains could indeed become a reality.

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Keiko spotted something out of the corner of her eye, injecting a single word into our jubilant conversation that had us craning our necks for a view. “Mogura“, she shouted, pointing in the direction of a nearby rock formation. We turned around just in time to see the elusive Japanese shrew-mole poke its head out of its hiding place before ducking back down for cover. It was my first and only time to see the primarily noctural animal up close and personal.

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Only when the clouds moved in and completely blotted out the views did we reluctantly retreat back to the warmth of the forest canopy. Instead of heading directly back down the way we came, we opted for the left fork along the old trail that was marked as “dangerous”. True to form, the path petered out at the top of a rocky precipice with no clear way down. Backtracking a bit, we dropped off the ridge and opted for the cedar plantation. We carefully picked our way through the maze of toppled trees, trying to halt the pull of gravity against our fatigued bodies and minds. It was sweaty, exhausting work, but eventually we did pick up the remnants of the path at the bottom of the cliffs and dropped back down to the forest road. Future hikers would be best served by heeding the warnings and sticking to the safety of the newer path.

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As promised, on the drive back we stopped off at the suspension bridge to stretch the muscles and to test our acrophobia. The bridge swayed under our weight as we bounced uneasily along the concrete footbridge. It was all in good fun, but we definitely knew that it would not be a good place to loiter in an earthquake. Fortunately, such seismic events were still a few years away from becoming a horrifying reality. As news of the powerful temblors reached the masses, the first people I contacted were my trusty trio of Kumamoto companions to make sure they are ok. With such devastating destruction, I fear that it may be quite some time before another hiker is allowed the privilege of setting foot on the roof of Kumamoto, and for that I feel both lucky by our timing and heartbroken by this new reality.

Mt. Hyakuri – 100 Miles

Nestled snugly in the mountains of northern Kyoto Prefecture lies a peak by the name of Hyakuri, whose kanji represent 100 Li, or a hundred Chinese miles. The Li is an ancient unit of measurement equivalent to about half a kilometer in length, so this mountain refers to the unobstructed panoramic vistas of 50 kilometers in all directions. A clear weather mountain this would have to be, so once again I teamed up with Will, Mai, and Sota for a stable high pressure window in mid-May.

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We started our automobile journey from Demachiyanagi station, heading up the paved switchbacks past Ohara village and deeper into the Kitayama mountains. Just past Bomura village, we veered left and followed a narrow lane past dwellings in shambles and grossly overgrown cedar plantations. We reached the trailhead a couple of hours after setting off from the ancient capital, and aside from a few fallow fields and a handful of houses dotted along the narrow valley, there wasn’t much in the way of amenities. Remarkably, a minibus runs up to this secluded hamlet twice a day to shuttle the residents to the more populated areas of Shiga Prefecture to the east. As Will and company sorted through their kit, I shuffled off to one of the overgrown vegetable fields in order to provide some organic fertilizer. Relieved, I retreated back to the car and shouldered the gear.

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The trail followed a gravel forest road for a short distance before commencing the climb through a lush and healthy deciduous forest alive with the vibrant greenery of a new season. In Japanese, this annual phenomenon is referred to as shinryoku, and it attracts scores of hikers wanting to witness the power of the changing of the seasons before the caterpillars wreak havoc on the freshly sprouted foliage. On the beleaguered slops of Hyakkuri, however, there was hardly a sign of human intrusion, and the path, littered with fallen branches, looked as if no other hikers had been up here in quite some time. I prefer these untamed folds of mountains to the more frequented spires further east. Even on weekends, a lot of Japanese mountaineers tend to be lazy and stick to the slopes with the easiest access.

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The temperatures rose in conjunction with the altitude gain, forcing sweat out of our aching pores along the long, undulating ridge towards the broad summit of our target peak. It had been just a couple of weeks since knocking off Mt. Oike in the Suzuka range, and now that the antibiotics were now finished, I had an usual jolt of energy despite the balmy temperatures. Will, on the other hand, had been swamped with a new school year at his school and was embarking on his first hike of the green season, and the angle of the gradient appeared to be winning. He looked as if had just come out of the shower, while Sota, just shy of his 9th birthday, stuck little breaks in at every available opportunity. Still, these more leisurely ascents were a much-welcomed change from my usual breakneck pace, and with the glorious foliage and mouth-watering vistas, it was hard to wipe the smile off our faces.

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Just before reaching the junction to the Takashima trail, near the top of a long, relentless climb, we took our first real break of the day and fueled up on snacks for the final assault on the 931-meter peak. While it may not seem like much, you should never judge a mountain based on elevation alone, as Ted and I learned so painfully on Jyatani, a mountain scantly 30 meters lower than our current outing.

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We all felt a bit better once the perspiration evaporated and the carbs were converted into glucose. We shouldered the packs and turned right at the junction for the short but steep ascent to the high point. A few fixed ropes assisted in the more abrupt pitches of the beech-lined slopes, and shortly before the lunchtime chimes we basked in the sunshine on my 79th peak.

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The panoramic vistas were inspiring enough, but the lack of shade caused a bit of discomfort. Despite my negligible cravings for a hot drink, I brewed up a cup of steaming coffee to not only give me a bit of a caffeine kickstart, but also to help lower the weight of my pack by using up the reserves of my hot water thermos. I never carry a stove on day hikes, preferring the ease and timeliness of a portable jug of hot water I can pour over tea bags, coffee filters, or perhaps into the lid of an instant ramen container.

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Instead of retracing our steps back on the serpentine ridge, we spied an alternative loop down the old saba kaidō, a disused trade route linking the Sea of Japan to the ancient capital. This required a traverse further south along the Takashima trail that looked like a breeze on the map. Someone forgot to tell those Yama-to-keikoku cartographers about the incline, however, as the contour lines were spaced much too far apart to accurately represent the real lay of the land. We spent the better part of an hour in a tussle with gravity. Will, Mai, and Sota were running low on hydrogen-oxygen reserves, and with no water source in sight, we had to ration the remaining liquids to avoid being caught out dry. At the top of an unmarked peak, the four of us collapsed in a heap of sweat and exhaustion. Completing all 80 kilometers of the Takashima trail must require superhuman effort, or at least the assistance of a few porters who can carry your heavy loads. With no way of getting fresh water along the ridge itself, trekkers are forced to descend the rugged valleys in search of mountain streams.

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The path dropped abruptly to a junction on the remnants of an old forest road, a place called Negorizaka pass by the generations of travellers throughout the centuries. An aging, rotting shelter provided a relatively dry roof for a duo of jizo statues placed here long before hiking was a recreational sport. Adjacent to the structure, a stone sculpted to resemble an index finger stood at head height, the kanji characters carved into the lichen-smothered face too faded to clearly decipher. We had at last arrived on the saba kaidō, or the old ‘Mackerel Road’ as the westerners tend to call it.

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We veered off the Takashima trail here, turning left and following the eroded trail until it spit us out a short time later on a broad, paved lane that is popular with cyclists looking for some additional exercise. It’s a shame that so many of Japan’s old roads have been paved over in such careless manor, but I guess it kind of makes sense if you think about it. If I wanted to built a literal road to nowhere, what better place to start than a path that has already been forged through a rugged tract of mountain land.

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It took about an hour or so to reach the rustic village where we had parked the car. Fitting enough, it was Sota who had a call of nature upon our return, depositing his load in the woods in much the same way that I had christened the trail upon our ascent. With good ole 79 under my belt, I pored over the maps to scope out the next mountain victim before the onset of the rainy season.

 

Mt. Oike – The Long Way

With spring in full swing, I seized the opportunity for one last foray into the Suzuka mountains to knock off the final, and highest, peak in the range. It was time to once again call upon Paul D. in Nagoya for some welcome companionship. Kanako, Tomomi, Baku, and I settled in the rented minivan in the early morning hours for the long drive out to Mie Prefecture and our rendezvous point at Nishifujiwara station. After getting stuck in traffic in the Kusatsu bottleneck, we arrived approximately 90 minutes behind schedule. Paul and his co-worker Shuhei squeezed into the backseat of the vehicle as Tomomi approached the switchbacks along route 306 that would take us to the trailhead at Kurakake pass, the shortest and easiest route up the peak.

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We hit an unfortunate snag very early in the journey, as the entire route was closed off with a head-high steel fence. The road was under construction, and there’d be no way to get to the trailhead unless we drove all the way around to the Shiga side of the mountain, which wouldn’t leave us enough time to complete the hike. I broke out the map, frantically studying alternative options from the Mie side of the mountain and there was one very long but possible route at a small village by the name of Yamaguchi. Tomomi did a u-turn as we drove around looking for the proper forest road, which was located a short time later. Unsure as to whether there’d be parking further up the narrow lane, we parked at the bottom and covered the 20-minute hoof to the start on foot.

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It was already late morning when we did finally hit the trail. Though it was dotted on our hiking map, the route was easy enough to pick up and relatively well-travelled. After a steep slog through a dense forest of planted cedar, the upper contours closer to the ridge remained out of human’s harm, with a healthy and bountiful hardwood forest beginning to sprout a new leafy outfit for the approaching summer.

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Our first landmark on the route was regrettably a monstrous electrical pylon. Even a range as humbling as the Suzuka cannot escape the claws of civilization. At least the bare foundations did afford some nice vistas of Nakazato reservoir that otherwise would not have been possible through the thick timber of the forest.

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The route meandered along a serpent-like spur towards Shirase pass. After a short drop past a washed out gully, the trail veered northwards through a fertile plain teeming with fresh plant life. The Suzuka mountains are well-known for their wildflowers, though we were a bit early to experience the brilliance of the False Helleborine in full bloom.

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We reached the mountain pass just past two in the afternoon and settled down for a late lunch. At our leisurely pace we would not be able to summit before nightfall. Not wanting to give up so easily, we hatched up a plan. Kanako, Baku, and Tomomi would head back down to the car from here, while Paul, Shuhei and I attempted to knock off the peak at lightning speed. The map said it’d be a 3-hour round-trip jaunt from the pass, but we aimed to complete it in less than two.

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Powered by the challenge, we trotted along a splendid ridge dotted with limestone and granite, giving an alpine feel to this section of the range. The trees still lay bare of foliage on this wind-swept spine, providing glimpses of our target peak sitting directly opposite our current position across a vast valley. Mt. Oike is actually on a parallel ridge from the main ridge running through the Suzuka mountains, so it takes a bit longer to reach than the more accessible sections of what is known as the Suzuka 7 area of the range.

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We reached the 40-minute hike to the junction for the Kogerumi route of Oike in only 14 minutes. The adrenaline quickly wore off when the signpost indicated that we had only reached the 6th stage point of the mountain. I checked the altimeter: even though we had started at Shirase pass at close to 1000-vertical meters, we were now at less than 800. The summit sits at nearly 1250 meters above seal level and time was of the essence.

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The route followed an ancient gully lined with moss-covered rocks and newly-sprouted plant life. Luckily the mountain leeches had not yet awakened from their winter slumber. With so many blood-sucking worms in the range, the climbing season is short. The pitch steepened as we reached the 8th stage point, and our fatigue was beginning to show. My calves ached as the trail turned towards the southeast, up yet another constricted gully still lined with a stubborn snowfield. Paul’s lungs were bothering him, a sign that a cold was perhaps on the way. He pushed on despite the discomfort and shortly after 3pm we topped out on the narrow summit and sunned ourselves on the small boulders flanking the high point.

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I downed my last energy bar as we slowly gathered up the courage to begin the downward descent. The drop to the 7th stage point was swift, but the climb back to Shirase pass was agonizingly slow. We seemed to be held back by not only the forces of gravity, but by our own physiological limits. We had already clocked over 10 kilometers and still had a long way to go before reaching the car.

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Back at the pass, we all settled into our own pace. I led the way, not wanting to rest until reaching the forest road again. Once entering the cedar forest, the trail seemed a lot steeper than earlier in the day, and I slowly eased my throbbing knees down the log steps built into the crumbling hillside. I felt completely spent – the last 6 months of antibiotics were finally catching up to me. I could hear my liver whimpering even through the wind. I vaguely remember my doctor cautioning me against doing any form of heavy exercise. Perhaps a 1000m+ vertical elevation change was too much for a body still trying to fully recover from a major illness.

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We somehow reached the trailhead just past 4:30pm. Our minivan was not in its original parking place, so we had a bit of a longer walk back down to Yamaguchi bus stop, where the gang were waiting. Kanako had settled into a relaxing nap in the back seat while the three of us collapsed into the soft seat cushions. Paul looked worse for wear and seemed happy to had the intense slog behind him. I for one was glad that we did not have to turn back, for I knew it’d be tough to find another leech-free climbing window.

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We dropped Shuhei and Paul back off at the station and headed to a nearby campground to see out the rest of the evening. Breaking up the trip into two days allowed us Kansai folk a chance to relax before the long drive back into town. The Suzuka mountains are definitely one of the best mountain ranges in the Kansai/Chubu area, and I had this Kansai Hyakumeizan list to thank for allowing me the motivation to explore it more deeply.

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